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I first saw this film when I was about 12 years old. I was already fascinated by birds, then – the feathered kind, I mean – and that was the main draw for me. It had a powerful impact. I don’t think I’ve seen it more than once or twice since then. There is, as yet, no DVD for the Japan region, so the scratchy, grainy, Japanese sub-titled VHS video I have is a prized possession. Thanks to YouTube and Google, I found a recent interview with David Bradley, the young amateur actor who played Billy Casper in the movie. I was disappointed. Something had happened in the intervening 40 years. The young David Bradley had a power and energy that is quite absent in his adult incarnation.

“What I’m talking about is stagnation of self. Things appear pretty much the same every day. It doesn’t look like there is a way out. But what’s actually happening is this: the person has built up many layers of cotton between himself and what he really wants.

“Several years ago, I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in 30 years. The last time I knew him, he was a musician and a very good one. He’d taken up an instrument one day, when he was 13, and in a few months he’d made  remarkable progress. He was very talented and very smart. Well, in the interim, from what I could gather, he’d been through three or four careers – none of them particularly rewarding. And now he was a blank. He’d gone down some “spiritual path,” and it was an energy drain.

There he was. Taking on one less desire after another.

“All present realities are shams, in the sense that what has yet to be discovered and created is far more galvanising than what already exists.

“If you’re going to pick a struggle, let it begin with finding something you REALLY desire.” (From “short-cut desire”,  John Rappaport’s blog.)

40 years on…

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Whilst I’m on this hobby-horse, let me canter on a little further. If you Google “Kes” and/or “David Bradley”, you’ll find a fair number of articles that tell you how “Kes” is a classic of British cinema, a powerful working class critique of British society, a “heartbreaking story” about a boy whose pet bird flies free while the boy remains in chains, and similar claptrap. Don’t read them. Just watch the movie.

I don’t see it as a critique of British society, or a sob story designed to get you reaching for the Kleenex. That’s a  distorted view you get if you think that the story ends with the end of the movie. I see it as a movie about individuals. Each person is navigating life as best he can in his or her own way. The bird doesn’t fly free – these people must be watching the movie with their eyes closed – it’s the bird that is in chains most of the time while the boy is free.

What’s to stop the boy finding another bird? If he’s done it once, he can do it again.

The focus on “society” and the social commentary detracts and distracts from the fact that we are seeing individuals navigating life in their own unique ways. We see most of the characters interacting with other people, true, but we see Billy by himself and with the bird for long periods of time. It’s Billy and life. It’s Billy’s life, and it is actually each of all the other characters and life as well. However, we tend to see individuals as social units instead of as individuals. Whereas in truth each of us faces life alone, with every breath we take.

The best bits of the movie, in my opinion, are the scenes where Billy is training the kestrel. There we see life, desire,  power and grace. Perhaps the director, Ken Loach, wanted people to come away from the movie with the conclusion that life or other people do not permit desire and power to flourish. (When I say power, of course, I don’t mean power over other people; Billy isn’t really interested in that.) Certainly that is the message that many people seem to have taken from this movie.

I disagree.